How Libraries Can Leverage the Learning Potential of AR
by Suzanne S. LaPierre
AR seems to be popping up everywhere these days, even at the liquor store. With the Living Wine Label app, users scan labels to hear historic stories associated with wines. The 19 Crimes series of Australian wines links to content about the crimes that once sent British citizens to Australia as punishment. If purveyors of spirits are tapping into the educational (and commercial) aspects of AR, librarians should certainly be paying attention.
|I turned to several experts in the library technology field …
Amid the buzz about the metaverse and the future of reality, information professionals are grappling with how best to leverage the learning potential of AR, VR, and related technologies. Are they little more than the latest in gaming experiences, or will mixed reality become integral to the future of information? I turned to several experts in the library technology field to find out.
To begin, let's go over a few basics. AR adds digital information to the user’s location at the point of need. The access point could be a space (such as a room) or an object (such as a book). AR differs from VR, in which the scenarios experienced are unrelated to the user’s actual environment. Of the two, AR seems to have more potential to impact the library world by merging digital and physical resources.
“The key with AR, or any technology for that matter, is to understand how it can help transform how we do a particular thing and then leverage that when it makes sense,” explains David Pixton, engineering and technology librarian at Brigham Young University (BYU). Pixton researches the educational potential of AR. “In other words, what will give us a sufficient improvement in interest and learning to justify the development cost?” he asks.
Currently, a popular use of AR is to gamify learning situations. Kari Kozak, director of the Lichtenberger Engineering Library at the University of Iowa, developed The Great Coffee Hunt: An Augmented Reality Scavenger Hunt, as a library orientation.1 It helps students learn about library resources interactively as they assist a cartoon detective gathering data to perfect his coffee-brewing skills.
A recent study on the impact of academic library orientations compared Kozak’s AR version to a traditional orientation. While both positively influenced students’ confidence in navigating the library, the AR orientation increased students’ perception that librarians want to help them.2 Other benefits include having the orientation available when librarians aren’t present.
Unfortunately, the software Kozak used to create the 2018 program, HP Reveal, has since been discontinued. In response, Kozak has been coordinating with students and professors in the computer and electrical engineering program to develop a new product with the intention of offering it open source. One challenge has been the time constraints of a semester, so subsequent classes are building on the project in layers. “A lot of people think you need to be a programmer to create with AR, and you don’t if you have a good base program,” Kozak explains. Kozak and her students use a Vyond product to design cartoons and video components.
Another tool she recommends is Credly for issuing badges. This enhances the gamification aspect for students, while also enabling professors to verify that students completed certain steps. Credly connects with LinkedIn to display badges so that users receive recognition for their work. Furthermore, by collecting badges, students can complete the learning experience asynchronously. Kozak finds this to be an improvement over linear orientations, which can result in bottlenecks around certain resources.
As an example of how new technologies might be integrated into traditional libraries, Kozak describes a project in which she adhered near-field communication (NFC) stickers to old VHS sleeves that had been wrapped in book covers and shelved among books. By scanning the NFC sticker, users were directed to electronic resources on the same topic. Similarly, a QR code on a dummy book can take users directly to the ebook. NFC or QR codes placed by equipment such as scanners can link to video demonstrations of the equipment.
AR in Academic Libraries
Some universities are enabling students to work with specialist librarians on enhancing the library experience through AR. New York University (NYU) has an augmented library team of undergraduate and graduate students. “We started the team because we felt there was a great space within the library for introducing AR and other technologies, but also because as an engineering school, we have a wonderful population of students that love using the library and love creating new things,” explains Matthew Frenkel, engineering librarian at NYU’s Bern Dibner Library of Science and Technology, who co-mentors the team along with Lindsay Anderberg, interdisciplinary science and technology librarian at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.
I asked Frenkel about the AR projects and ideas that are underway. “I would like to see an augmented reality discovery layer for the library that would make it easier to find electronic resources when you are in the library,” Frenkel says. Students have requested a better room reservation system. Posters are another project. “Our students have worked on the idea of AR posters; this a really interesting concept both for improving engagement but also for providing up to date information. We have talked about the idea of a poster for our library workshops that could be printed and identified with AR, but would provide updated information about what workshops are occurring in the library on that day or week.”
Pixton explains that at the BYU–Provo campus, the unique capabilities of AR are helping students explore the planet in new ways, such as “by realistically visualizing the invisible and the otherwise hidden from view (the magnetosphere and layers of the earth). Students can also experiment with things that are otherwise impossible (removing the magnetosphere) to bring better understanding of its impact on our world.” Besides curated learning experiences, AR can also offer experiential learning opportunities and support a maker environment in the library. “Patrons can learn skills in solid modeling or C# and then employ them to create an AR experience of their own. This offers a fun and rewarding way for patrons to gain industry-significant skills,” says Pixton.
AR for Public Libraries
Public librarians such as Jen Bishop, Exploration Commons manager for Carroll County Public Library in Maryland, are also endeavoring to give their communities access to AR and VR tools and experiences. Bishop leads Exploration Commons at 50 East, a new 14,000-square-foot interactive community space located within Westminster Library. Community members explore mixed-reality technologies in a makerspace and teaching kitchen. Programs are accessible virtually and are also offered in person.
I asked Bishop whether AR was likely to have more lasting implications for libraries and publishing than VR. She contends that both technologies have broad potential: “I see both AR and VR further integrating into everyone’s daily lives. VR is much more than gaming and is being used in industries, healthcare, [and] education even if it’s still rooted in the gaming world for consumers. As content and headsets become more accessible, VR will continue to reach people in these ways. AR will have a broader reach, and I do see it integrating into services in all industries over time, including libraries.”
Labs at Exploration Commons offer Unity and Unreal Engine for AR/VR development, as well as CoSpaces Edu, which is a kid-friendly creation platform also used by some schools and K–12 libraries. “We use CoSpaces Edu in programming for youth and adults to create simple AR applications using drag-and-drop programming,” Bishop explains. She also recommends Quiver (an app that brings coloring sheets to life for younger children) and HoloTats (an app used to create AR temporary tattoos, now called HoloToyz) as fun ways to introduce people of all ages to AR.
AR and Publishing
AR technology enables traditional paper books to be enriched with multimedia content, with the potential for merging digital and traditional publishing. In addition, it allows physical materials to be appended or corrected over time. AR elements in medical and other textbooks facilitate visualization and immersive learning, which can make content more accessible for students with reading disabilities.3 However, although the technology has been around for more than a decade, we haven’t seen much impact on public library books yet, beyond niche uses.
I asked Pixton whether AR was likely to have a major impact on the publishing world or whether it might be a fad that fizzles out. “Looking at the publishing world, I would have expected that eBooks would have been more transformative than they have been to date. … Two big factors that seem to be slowing our move to other knowledge sharing strategies are the cost of developing new types of content and the skillsets required to produce them. … I think these same forces will also affect AR’s ability to impact publishing,” Pixton offers. However, he does see potential for enhanced learning through AR textbooks: “I am aware of some research that has shown students can better understand difficult subjects by embedding AR content in textbooks, and that kind of application makes me really excited for the future.”
A common frustration with AR is that applications and platforms can disappear with little warning. Older technology may no longer be supported by major browsers, and many companies choose to retire products rather than rewrite them using newer technology. In addition to the disappointment of rapidly expiring products, there are caveats regarding accessibility and privacy.
Many customers lack equipment such as smartphones or have personal devices that operate on older technology that’s not compatible with current AR apps. One way around this is to have lendable tablets available on-site. Other accessibility issues are vision-related: People who lack depth perception might not be able to experience AR or VR sensations. Others experience motion sickness, especially if using a headset or moving through a space while using equipment.
When considering new mixed-reality platforms for school use, practitioners are encouraged to find one that’s committed to safeguarding the personal information of children. Vyond, which discontinued its GoAnimate product for schools, recommends researching whether prospective platforms are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).